Bridging the gap

‘Out of the Smoke’ Author’s Commentary

Chapter 5: The Eagle and Child

The two boys left Aggie’s shop with their pockets heavy and their hearts light.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 5: The Eagle and Child

When JRR Tolkien was writing ‘The Two Towers’ he came to an impasse at the end of the first half, later writing, “and there as the beacons flared in Anorien and Theoden came to Harrowdale I stopped.” This impasse lasted for about two years before he managed to pick the story back up again. Something similar happened to me with what was to become ‘Out of the Smoke’, and as the two boys left Aggie’s shop with their pockets heavy and their hearts light I stopped.

That was in November of 2016. To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t pick up the writing of the book again until a year later, in November of 2017. There were two reasons for the pause:

  1. In September of 2016 I signed a contract with an independent publisher in the US, Endever Publishing, to publish a science fiction novel for teens. The relationship wasn’t to last, and by the middle of 2017 Endever had folded. But I spent a large chunk of my time over that year focusing on the sci-fi book, going through revisions and preparing it for publication.
  2. I was seeking feedback on the first chapters of ‘Out of the Smoke’. I still wasn’t sure that I was an historical fiction writer, as up until this time I had written exclusively science fiction and fantasy. I needed reassurance that I wasn’t barking up completely the wrong tree.

During this time two important things happened.

Firstly, I met Jaime Dill. Jamie is currently a freelance editor and publishing entrepeneur, but back in 2016 she was the social media manager for Endever, working on a voluntary basis. When my sci-fi novel came up for editing Endever was short-staffed, so Jaime asked if she could do a pass.

One of the first things she did was to tell me that, in fact, I had only written two thirds of a novel (I had left it on a cliffhanger, foolishly anticipating a series of books). I know she was as nervous of telling me as I was of getting feedback (because she’s told me) but that first conversation has led to a friendship that has so far lasted nearly six years.

Jaime went on to edit ‘Out of the Smoke’ with me, as well as numerous other projects that I have worked on, including my current Wakeman book, ‘Through Water & Fire’.

Jaime has taught me an enormous amount about what it takes to write a good book, one that readers want to read, and we have grown and learned together over the years. I am good friends with her husband, Eric (also a writer), and we talk almost weekly. We haven’t actually met yet (Jaime and Eric live in North Carolina, and I live in London) but when we eventually do meet in person I know the meeting will be one of the happiest of my life.

Secondly, I found my publisher. In August of 2017, as Endever was winding down and Jaime and I were preparing to move on, I contacted someone I knew at the Wakeman Trust, a small independent press who at the time had only published Christian non-fiction books. I sent them the first chapters and asked whether it might be something they were interested in publishing.

In November of that year we spoke, and they asked how long it might take to write the rest. I optimistically estimated that I could be finished by the following February, and my contact agreed to take a look once it was done. (In the end I was finished by March, which looking back on it seems incredible.)

All of this goes to show that the process of writing and publishing is rarely ‘typical’. Received wisdom says that you finish the manuscript of a book, then submit it to literary agents. If you are fortunate enough to be picked up by an agent then you work on the book together, and the agent submits it to publishers. The publisher requests edits, and after a long time and a lot of work the book is eventually printed, shipped and sold.

I bypassed a lot of that, and went directly to an incredibly small press via a person I knew. I was aware when I approached Wakeman that the book would not be a best-seller, and probably wouldn’t even sell that many copies – but I knew Wakeman was the right publisher. The book would be a risk for them, as it was so different to what they had previously published, but I really did believe that it was a book that would suit them, and that children’s Christian fiction was a good area for them to expand into. In the end, happily, they agreed.

Once I did come back around to Billy and Tosher, there was the small question of what to do with them. I turned back to the ‘first part plan’ I had drawn up on November 2016:

  1. Billy climbs the chimney / reflects on life. Gets to the top, looks out on London, sees Tosher. Climbs back down.
  2. Out at the bottom; boys clearing up. Collecting the soot. Gerard abuses one of them for wasting soot. Billy defends him. Gerard knocks him down.
  3. End of the day (?). They are making their way back to the place where they sleep. Research this. Where would they stay? Tosher reveals that he stole a silver spoon from a house that day. Billy is alarmed — what did you do that for? Tosher carefree. They (?) meet a street gang. Threatening. Even Gerard is a bit intimidated by the boys. Introduce leader of the gang, Jack.*
  4. Arrive ‘home’. Describe conditions. Tosher and Billy escape and run through the streets to Aggie’s pawn shop. They pawn the spoon, and hear Aggie talking about reforms etc.
  5. Make their way to the inn. Tosher asks what Billy thinks about all that? Billy worried — this is all he has ever known, But remembers the boy who got stuck. What else could there be? Arrive at the inn, buy gin from Cathy**. She flirts. Billy fancies her. Rudely interrupted somehow.
  6. Gerard drags them back to Aggie’s shop to confront about the spoon. But Aggie won’t give in. Is Gerard racist? Makes Aggie angry.

* Eventually to become Archie.
** Eventually to become Clara.

So all I had to go on was ‘she flirts’ and ‘rudely interrupted somehow’. But in the end that was what it came down to: the chapter is a lovely scene of three friends enjoying a moment of pure peace together, before their world is shattered by the appearance of Gerard and the consequences of Tosher’s actions.

I felt it was important to give the characters that moment: a chance for them to enjoy each others’ friendship, and for us to see the relationship between the three of them. It’s a very sweet little love triangle that doesn’t really go anywhere, but serves to show how very human the three of them are. Billy goes on to do some terrible things, and it was important for me to show his humanity early on, so we could see where he came from and where he could come back to in the end.

A moment later a girl appeared at the kitchen door. She was tall and slim, with a mass of tight black curls barely contained under the cap she wore on her head. Her face was round, and although her eyes were surrounded by deep shadows they still managed to sparkle with a mischievous glint. When she saw them her tiny smouth spread into a smile.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 5: The Eagle and Child

I should say something here about Black people in Victorian London. There has been a lot of academic research conducted lately into the racial makeup of British society through history, and it is safe to say that since Roman times at the very least there has been no such thing as a single white British ‘race’. People from all parts of the world, all races and cultures, have long been a part of Britain. From North African Roman legionaries to Indian traders in the sixteenth century, all the way up to Jamaican Windrush passengers and everything in between.

I was determined to include specifically black characters in my book, and as I write this I am amazed that this was suggested as controversial by some people back in 2016. The fact is, black people would have been a familiar sight in Victorian London especially, as well as in other cities that acted as major trade hubs. There would have been nothing unusual about Clara working in the Eagle and Child, nor about Sticks being a part of Archie’s gang.

Racism would have been prevalent, especially as the world was still at the tail-end of the transatlantic slave trade with all its terrible repercussions – but black people did not exist purely as second-class citizens. There isn’t enough space here to go into the subject; suffice to say that a quick online search for black Victorians will bring up plenty of fascinating reading material. I recommend it.

As soon as Clara left, Billy’s tongue came unstuck from the roof of his mouth. Tosher was gazing after her with a dazed expression, which Billy felt sure mirrored his own, and as he looked at Tosher’s gormless face he felt a pang of jealousy.

‘Out of the Smoke’ Chapter 5: The Eagle and Child

Sometimes I regret not keeping Tosher and Clara around. Hopefully it’s no spoiler to say that they get separated from Billy, and in the context of Billy’s story this was necessary, to leave him on his own with no kind of moral compass to guide him. Clara is fierce, but she has a strong sense of right and wrong, and she would not have let Billy go down the road he ends up walking. Similarly, with Tosher around Billy would have been more concerned with keeping his friend safe than rising through the ranks of the criminal underworld. They are both good people for BIlly – so they had to go!

Originally my plan was to have the three come back together for the third act, and for them to examine their friendship in the context of the changes Billy has been through. In the end, however, Billy’s story demanded more space than I had given it in the original plan, and by the time he got back to them the book was over. I’ve always said I’d like to write into that originally-planned ending, and have the three of them spend more time together – in the mean time, you can read the continuing story of Tosher and Clara in my (occasional) short story serial, ‘Call the Poor’, which you can read for free.


Header illustration copyright Jaime Dill, 2020

One thought on “Bridging the gap

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  1. What you say about black people in Victorian London is fascinating. I am working on a novel at the moment set in eighteenth century Derby with the provisional title Doctor Darwin’s Assistant. Erasmus Darwin was a prominent abolitionist as was (very different character and motives) William Ward, editor of the Derby Mercury who later went to India to be William Carey’s printer. All sorts of themes are available here besides abolition: non-conformity, proto-evolutionary ideas, freemasonry, early textile factories, canals, attitudes to race as well as agitation for parliamentary reform – the last of which William Ward was heavily involved in. So much in fact that I will have to prune away and concentrate on certain things to the exclusion of others. I have asked Anne Powers (genealogical researcher living near Derby with a special interest in people of African origin) and she knows of no black people living in Derby in the 18th century – not that that means there were none, of course. Any thoughts – generally? would there be places where black people were quite a surprise to the locals?

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